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Car reviews - Volvo - XC60 - T6 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Solidity, quality, styling, cabin ambience and function, comfort, safety, available technology, size, T6 performance, cabin practicality, refinement
Room for improvement
Cruise control’s ability to hold speed, T6’s thirst when driven hard, busy ride on 18-inch wheels, dead steering feedback, centre console encroaches into passenger knee space, rack rattle on rougher roads, persistent rattle from rear of car

24 Jun 2009

SPEND enough time in new cars and you will find that a high price does not always guarantee top quality.

Sometimes relatively expensive cars feel cheap, such as the Mercedes-Benz A-class compared with the Volkswagen Golf, while sometimes a relatively cheap car can feel expensive.

The Volvo XC60 is a great example of the latter, being not especially pricey against, say, an equivalently equipped BMW X3 or Audi Q5. Yet the Swedish medium SUV seems more luxurious than either German rival.

And we’re not talking about gadgets and gizmos either, but what we see, hear (or don’t hear), touch and – importantly – smell.

Sight first. The work of former Volvo chief designer Steve Mattin, the XC60 takes the company’s recent Peter Horbury era of broad-shoulders and layered surfaces and introduces sleeker, wedgier elements. As a result, fine, complementary detailing pervades the car, from the sinewy waistline and fibre-optic LED tail-lights, to the squat stance.

Open an XC60 door and it feels truly substantial, and closes with a vault-like thud. The same is true for the hefty tailgate that requires a concerted lift.

The cabin could only belong to a modern Volvo’s. It smells expensive, is finished in materials that are nicely tactile and pleasing to the eye, and seems beautifully put together.

We are becoming less enamoured with the firm’s ‘floating’ centre console though. In this application it is angled oddly towards the driver, looking awkward like a Swedish Leaning Tower of Pisa from some vantage points.

Worse still, it juts out into the front passengers’ living room, fouling knees and thighs that would otherwise have a few more centimetres of splaying space. After a long drive you feel the contact spot on your knee like a bedsore. Time to let the floating console sink, Volvo.

More successful is the console’s contents, including four basic knobs (two for audio and two for climate) ensconcing a myriad of buttons. Intuitive to use and easy to decipher, each also feels good to the touch.

The instrumentation is both a model of simplicity and an example of clarity.

Glowing an appealing white-on-cool-metallic-silver at night are the main tacho and speedo dials, containing an electronic fuel gauge and odometer in one, and a complicated but informative trip computer, clock and warning-info display within the other.

It sounds cluttered but in fact the elegant sparseness of the design is what makes the XC60 dash so appealing and functional.

A word about the optional satellite navigation system: with just three buttons (actually, two and a toggle) mounted behind the right-hand spoke of the steering wheel, it did not auger well at first. However, just a minute fiddling about around soon enlightened us to the ease and simplicity of Volvo’s way, even if only the driver can control the system.

Some observers disliked the fact that data can be input on the move, but the screen is set sufficiently high for the driver to keep an eye on both – though, of course, we do not condone such a distraction when driving.

On the subject of vehicle operation, superb describes the driving position, augmented by an attractive steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, as well as a driver’s seat that arranges in many different directions and positions.

Except for the wide pillars, the driver suffers no obstructions, and is perched up high as in most SUVs.

For comfort, support and suppleness, it’s hard to go past a Volvo seat, and four of the five pews are nigh on perfect. More manufacturers should study the Swedes in this area.

And the centre-middle position is not bad either, except for the confined foot room as a result of the transmission tunnel bisecting the XC60 underneath. It also contains one of the biggest headrests you are ever likely to see, cleverly hidden as part of the backrest.

When not in use the middle seat section folds to create a large load-through into the cargo area, or otherwise contains an armrest with cupholder and storage unit when erect.

Of course, being a modern Volvo, the rear outboard seats have a further ace up their sleeve – a nifty two-position built-in booster seat that can accommodate youngsters and flyweights of up to about 36kg. Both parents and offspring will love this convenience feature.

Finally, still in the back seat area, there are face-level vents, a 12-volt power source, grab handles, overhead reading lights, map pockets and side windows that – annoyingly – only retract down halfway. Sorry kids.

Compared with most mid-sized wagons, the XC60 boot area suffers from having a high floor and a relatively low 490-litre volume capacity, although in reality it is ample for a sub-4.7m vehicle.

Carpeted and containing a couple of luggage strap loops and another 12-volt outlet, it is in keeping with the general luxury ambience of the Volvo’s passenger compartment.

Unfortunately, a persistent rattle from out the back broke the peace and marred the hard-won refinement work inside this otherwise silent safety cocoon. Was it from the heavy retractable cargo cover? Perhaps the floor above the (temporary) spare wheel squeaked incessantly. Or perhaps we should blame a mysterious bit of loose trim. Rougher roads really got the rattle going, driving us to distraction.

At this car’s launch earlier in the year Volvo reckoned about half of all buyers would choose the T6 model as tested over the D5 diesel. In fact, we were due to test the diesel instead of this T6 until Volvo did a switcheroo ahead of the upgraded 2010 XC60 D5, which arrives August 2009 fitted with a nearly all-new diesel engine.

Regardless, the appeal of this 3.0-litre twin cam 24-valve in-line six-cylinder twin-scroll turbo-charged petrol unit, complete with continually variable valve timing on the inlet side, is not hard to fathom.

Muscular and smooth to boot, with an arresting exhaust signature accompanying each rising rev, the T6 is a fine fit for the XC60’s luxury-car pretensions, since its performance is delivered virtually instantaneously right through to the 5600rpm power peak.

And the six-speed Geartronic automatic gearbox is a handy ally to this engine’s wide-ranging capabilities, not failing to provide the right ratio for the situation at hand.

We reckon it is virtually impossible to pick where the twin-scroll turbo kicks in, but you are certainly aware of its oomph when accelerating or overtaking.

We averaged about 13 litres per 100km over a 700km city, suburban and highway journey loop, almost fully laden and often thrashed in the Geartronic’s ‘Sport’ mode just for the fun of it. We never grew tired of this car’s velvety performance punch.

The DTSC traction/stability control system is equally as non-intrusive as the turbo, except when prodding the pedal on a wet or loose surface. In this case you do feel a gradual intervention, but generally not enough to disrupt the flow of performance.

The fourth-generation Haldex all-wheel drive system, which normally sends up to 95 per cent of torque to the front wheels, can redirect up to half of it rearwards to keep progress safe and smooth.

Volvo says DSTC also includes anti-roll sensors to aid stability during evasive manoeuvres, as well as a Trailer Stability Assist that dampens the oscillations that might occur while towing a trailer or caravan, through the braking of one or more wheels and by restricting engine torque.

We only managed some mild off-road track work, but it was reassuring to know that the company has borrowed Land Rover’s hill descent control technology, that uses the engine’s torque and ABS system to maintain a steady crawling speed on steep descents.

Can’t really imagine many XC60s venturing out far enough to require this system, so back on the bitumen it was for us.

And, you know what? We’re struggling to recall another vehicle in the $70K bracket that feels quite so surefooted when cruising on the open road as this.

Driving for hours through squally, wintry conditions with the wipers set to maximum, the Volvo tracked true with a non-plussed surety that seemed well beyond its price positioning, while three other adults sat blissfully unaware of all the turbulence and dangers going on outside. We would entrust our family to this vehicle, no questions asked.

Most buyers will feel equally pleased with the rock-solid weight and responsiveness of the powered steering system, which sees this car at low to average speeds glide through wide turns with an alacrity that frankly belies its size and (considerable at around 1920kg) kerb weight.

But the lack of steering feedback and general overall numbness is a black mark for us, as is the turning circle, which is a tad too wide, and some rack rattle over rougher roads.

Furthermore we disliked the deterioration of dynamic decorum when we tackled hairpin turns with speed and/or gusto. If you decide to drive this like a sports car, its heavy nose and dull steering will soon have you backing right off.

This is especially galling as the closely related Ford Mondeo runs rings around the Volvo for driving pleasure. A VW Tiguan is far more fun than this to drive.

Volvo’s response is to spend another $4175 for its FOUR-C active self-adjusting chassis technology. This option continuously modifies the suspension’s damping rate according to how it is being driven.

There are three settings – Comfort, Sport, and Advanced, with ‘Sport’ offering greater body control and quicker steering responses over the ride-quality prioritising ‘Comfort’ mode, while ‘Advanced’ firms the dampers right up for maximum road holding.

Do you care though? Potential XC60 buyers will most likely be far more interested in the way it glides serenely and securely along our often rough and ragged blacktop.

However, we should point out that the 7.5 x 18-inch wheels did ride more firmly than we would have hoped on uglier road surfaces, so with little steering feedback on offer as compensation, we would be inclined to switch to the smaller and comfier 17-inch items and enjoy the ride instead.

Rounding out the Volvo’s manifold talents are truly strong brakes that stop with immediate force, and with little drama or fuss.

We have also left the XC60’s piece de resistance to last, because we never did get to try it out except under controlled conditions at a racetrack.

Helping to make this Volvo one of the safest ever, the standard ‘City Safety’ device is a low-speed automatic braking system designed to prevent or minimise collisions at speeds under 30km/h.

It uses a windscreen-mounted laser sensor to monitor closing speeds within eight metres of the vehicle’s front bumper, then preparing and sometimes activating the brakes before the driver has reacted to an impending collision.

Based on the gap to the vehicle in front and the XC60’s speed, City Safety makes 50 calculations a second to determine what braking force would be needed to avoid a collision.

Two interesting options include a $4175 Adaptive Cruise Control with Auto Brake function that monitors at higher speeds the distance of a vehicle ahead for sudden deceleration, preparing the car for heavy braking and up to 50 per cent of full braking power should the driver not respond to the visual and audible alert that is given, as well as the $1275 Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) option, employing cameras in the door mirrors to locate vehicles lurking outside of the driver’s vision, alerting him/her via a lamp on the front pillar closest to that vehicle.

For a fiver under $65K, the XC60 T6 includes City Safety, DSTC, and airbags all round, climate-control air-conditioning, cruise control, trip computer, leather upholstery, alloy wheels, fog lights, puddle lights, remote central locking, power windows and headlight washers.

Yet it isn’t just all this equipment that has the Volvo feeling like an expensive luxury SUV.

Yes, we would prefer more steering tactility and a suppler ride, but the XC60 T6 talks to all the senses in a way that surprisingly few prestige vehicles manage these days. Volvo ought to be applauded for creating such a complete SUV for the money.

Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes have a revitalised, formidable opponent on their hands.

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